Surgeon General's Critique of Drug Policy Deserved Better Antidrug Efforts Have Shown Little Success at Home and Have Strained Relations Abroad

Article excerpt

WHEN Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders suggested that the United States ought to have a national discussion about legalizing drugs, she reaped a heavy storm of criticism, even by the standards of the lightning she normally attracts. It was also undeserved.

When a policy is not working, common sense suggests that it should be reconsidered. Clearly the nation's drug policy is not working. This is evident to everybody except those committed to the status quo with an almost religious faith. Drug use is essentially unchanged. The illegal drug trade flourishes and brings violence with it. A public clamor went up to withdraw troops from Somalia when 18 Americans were killed. That is about the number killed every two weeks in the nation's capital. Most of the victims are young black men and most of the murders are related to drugs.

The common suggestion for dealing with this scandal is more police on the streets and longer prison sentences. It has recently turned out that the police in Washington are themselves dealing drugs, and the prisons are so overcrowded that inmates convicted some time ago have to be released to make room for those convicted more recently. Build more prisons, it is said. That would be a good idea; but not many people, especially the more vociferous hard-liners, have thought through the budgetary implications. It is expensive to build prisons and even more expensive to staff and operate them.

The US drug policy has international repercussions. It has strained our relations with many countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. A drug lord in Colombia had the effrontery to offer to pay off that country's national debt in return for immunity. The US has spent a great deal of political capital, as well as hard cash, in pressing drug-producing countries to control the supply. In return, the leaders of those countries, notably Colombia and Mexico, have chided the US for not controlling the demand. This kind of argument leads to a dead end.

Current policy is also leading to a dead end in the US. Therefore, let us consider the problem anew.

Any drug policy needs two elements: It must deal with the effects of drugs on the people who use them, and it must deal with the larger social effects of the drug trade.

Drugs are bad. They impair mental and/or physical functions. And they are addictive. The current policy stresses education and counseling against use and treatment for addiction. Thus we try to reduce the demand, as we have been importuned by our friends abroad. But the effort is inadequate. Especially as it concerns treatment of addicts, it is underfunded and understaffed. …